California Money Bail Overhaul Clears Legislative Hurdle

(CN) – Amid heated debate, the California State Assembly voted Monday to pass a bill that would reform the state’s money bail system, though criminal justice reform organizations criticized risk assessment tools central to the legislation.

Lawmakers opposing the bill said it would put lives at risk by releasing individuals without a financial incentive to return to court. Critics of the bill also said the amended version was not made available to them and that the process was rushed through without proper debate.

Senate Bill 10, the California Bail Reform Act, would replace the current money bail system with pretrial risk assessments, empowering local courts to determine who should be released while awaiting trial or sentencing.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, d-Alameda, was backed by law enforcement groups and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

“Under the current broken system, freedom and liberty is pay-to-play,” Bonta said Monday in the Assembly. “The human impacts are devastating when people who can’t afford bail lose their jobs because they’re in jail or lose their homes because they don’t pay rent. In some cases they lose their children.”

Bonta called the bill “transformational” and said the current cash money bail system has not made the state any safer.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye delivers her State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, D-San Diego, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, urged her colleagues to pass the bill since another bail overhaul would likely not come before them anytime soon.

“This is a solid first step to get into position to wrap ourselves around this issue,” Gonzalez-Fletcher said.

In a 41 – 27 vote, state lawmakers approved the current version of Senate Bill 10, narrowly attaining a majority vote needed to pass.

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, voted against the bill, calling it “life-changing, life-altering” and suggested lawmakers try a pilot program before launching bail reform statewide.

Bonta dismissed his suggestion, adding that San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, among others nationwide, have already run bail reform pilot efforts.

“[SB 10] is ready for primetime,” Bonta said.

“Straighten your back, look to the sun, move towards justice,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, adding that she would support the bill despite concerns about racial bias in risk assessment tools.

A risk-assessment tool weighs factors in pretrial detainees’ background, including the current charges, prior convictions and a history of failure to appear in court. It then assigns the defendant a risk level based on those factors.

The bill was opposed by Human Rights Watch, the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, Los Angeles Community Action Network, JustLeadershipUSA and others who said the amended version deviated substantially from its introductory language.

Opponents also pointed out the lack of a neutral, state-sponsored legislative analysis of the bill.

In a statement Thursday, Lead National Organizer Lex Steppling from JustLeadershipUSA said risk assessment tools “would entrench racist risk assessment technology in every single California county.”

In an Aug. 14 statement opposing the bill, Essie Justice Group, which had originally supported the bill, raised concerns about leaving detention based on risk assessment scores to the “whims” of local counties.

“The judicial reliance on risk assessment tools at arraignment is particularly concerning,” the statement said. “Risk assessment tools are prone to racial, gender, and socio-economic bias, because they rely on criminal justice data.”

In a statement Monday, the executive directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of California said they opposed the amended version of the bill, shifting from their previous neutral stance, because it compromised their goals of protecting due process and attaining racial justice.

“As much as we would welcome an end to the predatory lending practices of the for-profit bail industry, SB 10 cannot promise a system with a substantial reduction in pretrial detention,” the statement said. “Neither can SB 10 provide sufficient due process nor adequately protect against racial biases and disparities that permeate our justice system.”

National pretrial trends show 61 percent of the country’s inmates have not been convicted – and 64 percent of California’s inmates are awaiting arraignment, trial or sentencing, according to an October 2017 California Supreme Court report.

A study from Santa Clara University School of Law shows the average amount paid to a bail agency is about $1,500. Defendants must post the whole amount or pay a nonrefundable 10 percent fee to a bond company before they can be released. Those who cannot afford either can be held up to 48 hours in jail before arraignment.

In California, bail is determined by a fixed bail schedule set by counties at the direction of the state. According to a survey by the Board of State and Community Corrections, it costs counties a little over $100 a day to house inmates awaiting trial.

The bill now heads back to the state senate for concurrence.

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